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“You’re late, Ms. Wade.”
From behind his imposing desk, Tom Somerhalder, editor-in-chief of the Seattle Tribune, ground his hand into a fist on top of a stack of papers, skewering Gemma Wade with his infamous glare.
Flicking a glance down at her watch, she noted the second hand ticking past three. Fifteen seconds hardly qualified as late, but she was in no position to argue. “My apologies, sir. The elevator was—”
“I don’t recall asking you for an excuse.” Shoving some papers together in front of him, he paused an extraordinarily long time before going on, until she was sure the thudding of her heart must be audible.
“Right. Sorry,” she mumbled.
That brought his eyes up to her again in a slow burn. For a man in his late fifties, Somerhalder had an annoyingly taut, Paul Newman-esque physique and thick, salt-and-pepper hair that had not lost any ground to genetics. And if smoking were still allowed in the building, the unlit cigarette he habitually tapped against his desk would be generating a halo of smoke around his head. And hers. “I suppose you have a good idea why you’re here,” he said at last.
She took a deep breath. “I expect you’re about to fire me.” She dug her fingernails into her palms, hoping she wouldn’t do something idiotic…like cry. “Which is why I wrote this.” She pulled her carefully crafted resignation letter from her pocket, laid the thing on his desk.
After a quick glance, he handed her letter back. “No.”
The sting of his rejection hit her like a sharp, low blow. So, that’s how this was going to go. He wouldn’t even give her the chance to resign.
Not that she’d really expected better, after the debacle that had followed her last article about corruption at ALTMARK Industries. The article whose primary source had been exposed as a liar. Her second source had—thank you very much—merely corroborated the first. Her third source had vanished into thin air after the article’s release.
On Saturday, she had been forced to make a retraction and an apology, even though her gut still told her that her reporting had been absolutely correct. The sharklike smirk on ALTMARK CEO Roland Altruier’s face, as he’d watched her squirm at that press conference, all but confirmed that for her. But she wasn’t in the business of speculation. Real, supportable facts were all that mattered. And she had trusted the wrong source. The fault was hers. And getting fired was the natural outcome of such failure.
“Firing you is exactly what I should do.” Somerhalder leaned back in his ancient leather chair, the one no one could convince him to replace. She opened her mouth to reply, but he cut her off. “But I’m going to give you another chance.”
His words took her breath away. Another chance? Out of the goodness of his heart? Impossible. They didn’t call him the freaking Tin Man behind his back for nothing. No, he didn’t give second chances. That, or the pod people from Invaders from Mars had stopped by overnight and traded her boss out for a body double. “Sir?”
Getting to his feet, he walked to the bar cart under his window and poured himself a bourbon/rocks, his usual poison. He offered her nothing. Not that she expected him to.
Ah. Here it comes. The mailroom for her, where her humiliation would be complete. Salvaging her career at this point only looked possible if pigs had somehow sprouted wings and were sailing past Somerhalder’s most excellent view of Mount Rainier. She searched the gray sky out her boss’s window. “To…where?” she asked, thinking of the nerdy and obsessed Elliot Preston who delivered her mail daily with a little flower and who would now be rubbing shoulders with her in the cramped mailroom on an hourly basis.
Somerhalder smiled without a hint of pleasure and tossed a thin manila file her way. She opened it cautiously.
“Cathy Moriarity handed me this story,” he said. “But I want you to cover it. It’s a holiday weekend, but you’re going to work through. I expect this article on my desk Monday morning. You’re officially off the business beat. Permanently, as far as I’m concerned. Unless you can prove you deserve another opportunity.”
Humbly, she would agree to anything. “I…I didn’t think you would—”
“Frankly, neither did I. But good writers are hard to find. You’re a damned good writer, Wade. But you’re a lousy judge of character. You trusted a bad source—”
“Who was nevertheless right about Mr. Altruier,” she interjected. She couldn’t help herself. Watching that weasel CEO score an unearned win in every paper in town made her physically sick to her stomach. She knew for a fact that the man glaring at her now felt the same.
“Don’t make me regret my decision.”
Grateful. That’s what she should feel. But “bitter” was the word that lingered on the tip of her tongue. “No, sir. You’re absolutely right. What happened was my fault entirely.” Her gaze lowered to the contents of the folder once more and suddenly, the mailroom didn’t look half bad. “This,” she said carefully, pointing at the contents of the folder, “this is about…weddings? In…in…a place called—” she looked closer “—Marietta, Montana?” He might as well be talking about…Siberia.
“That’s right. If you have a problem with this assignment—”
“No! No. I can do it. I’ll write the hell out of it.” The angle was there in black and white. Marietta: The new romantic/happily ever after hub of the West. She leaned forward, trying not to gag on the assignment. “Just to be clear…a fluff piece, then?”
Her boss stuck his usual unlit cigarette in his mouth and let it dangle from his lips. “I doubt that any of those dozens of couples who are drinking whatever the hell is in the water over there would appreciate you calling their lives fluff. That’s the whole point of good personal interest pieces. They’re not written as fluff. But they fill a news hole we need filled. You understand?”
Oh, yes. She understood. Only too well. But weddings? He knew about her history. Of course he knew. He was just torturing her now.
“I suggest you don’t disappoint me again.”
She shook her head. “Is there anything else, sir?”
“See HR about plane tickets and accommodations. I want you down there by tomorrow morning. That’ll be all.” By the time he’d finished talking, he had already essentially dismissed her and was studying a piece of paper on his desk.
Gemma swallowed hard. “Thank you, Mr. Somerhalder. For the second chance. I won’t let you down.”
He said nothing in reply as if she’d already become invisible.
She backed out of his office and slid the door shut with a nearly silent click. Outside, in the editorial pool, a dozen pairs of eyes were on her, waiting to see what had happened. Everyone had assumed what she had assumed.
Frannie Samuels, who wrote political features and with whom she’d bonded on day one in the break room over a mutual love for Kit Kat bars, fell into lockstep with her as she skirted the editorial department as quickly as she could to the bank of elevators, where she pushed the down button.
“Well?” she asked. “Did he fire you?”
“Practically speaking,” Gemma admitted. “But technically, no. He demoted me.”
“News hole filler. Personal interest. More specifically…weddings.”
Frannie gasped. “A fate worse than the mailroom! But isn’t that Cathy Moriarity’s beat?”
Gemma slid a helpless look at her. Yes and now Cathy, the resident backstabber, would double-dog despise her for making off with her Cinderella-lives-happily-ever-after story.
“At least you’re still employed,” Frannie said, trying for optimism. “It’s tough out there.”
For a disgraced journalist, was what she didn’t have to say. Two years just to land this job and four years of hard work to claw her way into business features. Now she was back at the bottom of the heap.
“Now what?” Frannie asked.
Gemma hugged the manila folder to her chest. “You ever heard of a place called Marietta, Montana?”
“Me neither. But apparently they have a wedding epidemic going on there with an above average sticking rate that’s gotten the attention of some pixie dust and Bigfoot believers. As well as, apparently, our boss. Somehow, I have to write a story about it.”
The elevator dinged and her friend sighed. “Weddings? Day-umm. Somerhalder really is a sadist.”
Gemma managed an ironic smile. “I’m leaving as soon as I can book a seat. See you when I get back?”
She sent her a sympathetic smile and hugged her. “Absolutely. The wine’s on me.”
“Is that whine with an ‘h’ or extra dry?” Gemma deadpanned.
“Girrrl…” Frannie said, “I have a feeling you’re gonna need both.”
Frannie hugged her, then headed back to her desk. Gemma slipped into the empty elevator and pushed the button for the third floor.
Just as the doors began to close, someone caught them and they slid back open.
Gemma blinked at the sight of that very male hand. The one with the gold band on the fourth finger. Of course, she would know that hand anywhere.
She shrank back into the corner of the elevator.
Ashton Townsend—her late, great, former fiancé—slipped between the doors in a breathless rush, only to freeze at the sight of her. She refused eye contact, pulled the refuge of the lonely—her cell phone—from her pocket and frantically jabbed at the thumb lock to open it.
“Hey, Gemma,” he said as the doors slid shut.
She looked vaguely up in his direction. As if he didn’t matter at all. “Oh. Hello.” The damned phone refused to open. After a few more hostile thumb jabs, she gave up and shoved the phone back in her pocket. She stared at the elevator buttons. Anything to avoid looking at him.
“So I…uh…heard about what happened.”
Who hadn’t? “Did you.”
Her steady gaze flickered up at him. “Are you?” At six-two, he towered over her. He looked like he’d put on a couple of pounds around the gut, too. Probably Rebecca The Blonde’s perfect cooking.
“Well, sure. That was a hard thing you had to do on Friday. On television. In front of the world. We both felt for you. Rebecca and I.”
She focused on the lit floor numbers on the wall panel as they went down. “I’m simply agog with gratitude.” Why are these freaking elevators so slow?
With a long sigh, Ashton reached for the stop button, and before she could prevent it, he pushed it. The elevator lurched to a halt.
“Wh—what are you doing?” she demanded, shoving his hand out of the way. “Stop that!”
“Look, Gemma. We both work here. We can’t go on avoiding each other this way—”
“Yes, we can. We absolutely can.” She reached for the button only to be blocked again, this time by his whole body.
“This…hostility between us is unproductive—”
“Hostility?” Is he kidding? She was doing everything in her power to avoid him.
“—and unnecessary. We’ve got to move past this irrational anger of yours—”
“Irrational?” It was all she could do to keep from punching him. “You left me standing alone in front of two hundred of our best friends. In my wedding gown. Are you seriously calling my feelings irrational?”
He had the nerve to wince. “I had hoped we’d put that behind us. I’ve apologized for what happened at—”
“And pardon me if I don’t want to have afternoon tea and scones with you and the new Mrs. Townsend. Or have a hostage conversation with you in an elevator.”
“Is that why you side-eye me every time we pass in the hallway? Or hightail it out of the cafeteria the moment I arrive?”
“Hightail it?” She laughed. “Oh, Ash. That’s a red-liner verb if I’ve ever heard one.”
He colored, his easy demeanor darkening. “Or worse, gossip about me? Time you moved on, Gem. I’m just trying to clear the air between us.”
“The air between us is perfectly clear. And if you’re under the sad misapprehension that I’m sitting home alone, rehashing our fiasco of a relationship by a lonely fire, you’re mistaken. Why, I had a date just last week. Two, in fact.” A gynecologist appointment and a dental checkup. But…why quibble?
“Look. We both know you were trying to scoop me on that ALTMARK story and this…thing between us, your obsession to beat me to the deadline, you got careless.”
Aaaand…in he comes for the kill.
“Obsession? That was my story. I worked it from the start. And I was not careless. My source got careless. That’s who got careless. And he was no doubt secretly paid off by Altruier himself.”
“You rushed it,” Ash corrected. “That’s what happened. And you’re lucky Somerhalder only bumped you down to—”
“I did not rush anything—”
“—and secondly,” she blurted, “don’t try to mansplain me about how to do research. Thirdly, you had absolutely nothing to do with my pursuit of that story. I don’t even think of you anymore, Ashton. Really I don’t…” She stopped. “Wait. How did you know what happened with Somerhalder? I haven’t told anyone except Frannie.”
For an uncharacteristic moment, he looked confused. “I…didn’t know. I…just heard a rumor.”
As her brain ticked over the possible scenarios that allowed for such a gaff, her thoughts halted on the only one that made sense. She blinked. “What did you do?”
He turned to stare at the stainless steel doors. “What?”
“Oh, my God,” she breathed.
Reaching for the stop button, he released it with a condescending shake of his head.
The elevator lurched and her stomach sank with the downward motion. Of course. Ashton had always had Somerhalder’s ear. “You talked him into demoting me. Sending me to Purgatory, Montana. Didn’t you?”
He tilted a patient look her way.
“What the hell, Ash!”
Her ex’s jaw hardened. “I was trying to help you. I was just getting you out of your own way. As usual. I figured I owed you that much. He would have fired you.”
A shiver of regret that she had ever loved this man raced through her. As for Somerhalder, no one told him what to do. Not even Ashton, his fair-haired godson. He decided that on his own. Though she wouldn’t put it past Ash to suggest such a thing. “Don’t ever do that again. Don’t ever try to interfere with my career.”
“Your precious career,” he scoffed. “We both know it’s more important than anything else, right?”
Blaming her for his own infidelity was so typical. But his accusation stung nevertheless.
“See?” he went on. “That’s the difference between you and her. Rebecca would have thanked me.”
“Then aren’t you glad you picked her?”
The elevator dinged and the doors slid open. “Sooner or later,” he said, “you’ll see I was just trying to help you. So shoot me. I interceded. Maybe now’s time to face facts, Gemma. Hard news really isn’t your thing.”
With his words still vibrating in her, she pressed her back against the wall. “Go to hell, Ash.”
Running a hand through his perfect dark blond hair, he gave her a middle-finger salute. “Yeah. Whatever. You’re welcome.” Turning left out of the elevator, he disappeared from sight as Gemma slid her eyes shut, and for the second time today, honestly feared for her career.
It seemed almost impossible to her now that she and that man had ever planned for a future together. He had, after all, pursued her, not the other way around. She’d been too busy working to notice him, but eventually, he’d charmed her the way he somehow charmed everyone. He had a way of being noticed wherever he went. Waiters at restaurants they frequented knew him by name. The newspaper vendor down the block shouted across the street to him every morning. Those same people hardly noticed her, or even knew her name. If she walked into that same restaurant alone, they acted as if they’d never seen her before.
But that had been okay. He was the charming one who made them laugh. Larger than life. Handsome as hell. Successful. Foolishly, despite resisting him for so long, she’d felt lucky to have been chosen by him. He’d even charmed her mother, which was hard to do, hooked up to a chemo IV as she had been at the time. Their upcoming marriage had given her something to hope for. When they’d broken up, her mother’s heart had broken, too.
For that, if for nothing else, Gemma despised him. But obsessed? No. She wanted nothing more than to do her job and be left alone. But working at the same paper was a constant reminder that the choices she made in life would always haunt her.
That was her burden to bear. His was being an ass.
End of Excerpt